In signing Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan, Chelsea are acquiring one of the most complete centre-forwards in European football.
He leaves Serie A as the league’s standout player during the past campaign, recording the 2nd most goals and the 2nd most assists as he led the Nerazzurri to their first Scudetto in more than a decade. Now returning to Stamford Bridge, the Belgian will be expected to add a much-needed clinical element to the Blues attack.
At Inter, Lukaku played alongside Lautaro Martinez in a 3-5-2 and was the focal point around which Antonio Conte constructed the team’s attack. The team played with width, and while they could control possession and utilized astute attacking patterns with the ball, they were most dangerous on the counter.
Much of this is because of Lukaku. His pace and power make him an obvious threat when running in behind, and he’s rarely caught offside because of how well he times his runs. He can finish with both feet as well, which makes it harder for retreating defenders to block his shots since they cannot anticipate from which angle Lukaku will shoot.
Lukaku is also an underrated dribbler, and he’s a menace when carrying the ball up the pitch himself. Not only can he use his strength to shield the ball from opponents, he is also capable of quick, subtle shifts with the ball to evade opposition challenges. His dribbling is far from extravagant, but it’s incredibly effective at getting past players.
It’s also worth noting that many of Lukaku’s assists in Serie A came from counter-attacking situations. He lacks the vision and passing quality to execute difficult through-balls to carve open a settled defence, but his ability to time and weight passes correctly on the break is still extremely impressive. He reliably makes the right decisions in the midst of rapid, frantic counter-attacks, and it allows him to rack up assists in transition.
In settled possession, Lukaku has become a more complete threat than he was at Everton and Manchester United and contributes to his team’s attacks in a variety of ways. With his height and ability to create separation from defenders (such as using his arm to keep a defender at a distance), he is still a threat from crosses. Having said that, the 28-year-old is best when he’s able to run onto through balls or latch onto driven crosses where he can use his speed and quick feet to convert chances.
His biggest area of improvement has come from his link-up play. Part of that development is because of how Conte used Lukaku in comparison to how he was used at Man United. Where Jose Mourinho saw him as an isolated target man who could contest aerial duels and bring others into play, Conte recognized that the Belgian is best when he’s receiving balls into his feet and is able to exchange quick, short passes with players around him.
Lukaku’s touch and control has also improved, meaning he is better equipped to involve himself in build-up play. He doesn’t drop especially deep to collect the ball, instead drifting into the right inside channel to receive the ball and either carry into the penalty area himself or shift the point of the attack by passing it to the left side before making a run into the box.
This movement into the right half-space leaves centre-backs in a quandary. If they try to mark him tightly and follow him, Lukaku can use his physicality to overpower them in duels. If they hold their position, they allow him to run at the backline unopposed. It also causes opposition defences to shift towards the right side of the pitch, opening space on the other flank that can be exploited by other players.
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At Chelsea, Lukaku’s skillset should be well-utilized. Tuchel’s system is predicated on creating numerical overloads in the final third to create chances, and the Belgian’s ability to occupy multiple defenders at once will allow the Blues to more easily out man their opposition in certain areas of the pitch.
His ability to run in behind from the right inside channel should dovetail well with Timo Werner’s runs from the left, and both should be able to add dynamism to the Blues’ attack as well as create space behind them for the likes of Mason Mount and Kai Havertz to exploit. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a clinical finisher who will add much needed cutting edge to their attacks.
Lukaku must adapt to Chelsea’s slower, more methodical style which will give him fewer counter-attacking opportunities than he had at Inter. He’ll also need to become accustomed to Tuchel’s pressing system, where he’ll be expected to defend aggressively from the front.
Given these tactical differences, his transition back into Premier League life may not be smooth sailing. Tuchel is an astute coach, and will likely have a clear plan in place to integrate Lukaku into his attacking line to make best use of his qualities.
From a broader perspective, spending £97 million on a 28-year-old forward when you have a younger striker with one of the best goal-per-90 rates in the league is wasteful, especially considering Lukaku was at Chelsea as a youngster.
For most clubs, it’d be a worrying precedent to set for other transfers. But Chelsea can afford it, and in breaking the bank to acquire Romelu Lukaku, they now have one of the best strikers in Europe who could propel them to the Premier League title.